Nevada Latinos keep Día de los Muertos celebrations alive in their communities


Read this story in Spanish

Flowers bloomed on a recent Saturday inside the Winchester Dondero cultural center as sisters Ana Martinez and Joyce Mayorquin cut and fold pieces of colorful tissue paper at a workshop. The final step – twisting and attaching a green pipe cleaner to form the stem – brought the paper flowers to life.

Floral creations will decorate a ofrenda, or domestic altar, commemorating their grandparents on Día de los Muertos, a day of celebration with roots in Latin America that honors those who have passed away. It is a tradition that the sisters are trying to preserve, now with the help of Mayorquin’s 5-year-old son. Her families and those of her husband come from different parts of Mexico.

“In my ofrenda now, I also integrate my husband’s family. We mix our traditions, my son learns our two cultures and he grows up here, ”Mayorquin said. “My parents only spoke Spanish to us and we learned English at school. I asked my son to speak a little Spanish because of my parents, but he mainly understands English. It’s the fight from the first generation to the second generation – you really have to try to keep it alive. ”

Participants worked under yellow, red, orange, blue, pink and purple papel picado banners hung from the ceilings of the Las Vegas Cultural Center, where a free workshop taught attendees the meaning of the ofrendas and how to decorate them for Día de los Muertos.

Nelly Tobón and her husband Eddie Ramos, founders of Club Migrantes de Uruapan, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of Mexican culture and traditions, organized the workshop to teach the community, especially the younger generations, tradition and its importance. Their goal is to create a bridge for Latinos in the United States who are geographically separated from family or cultural celebrations across the US-Mexico border.

Handmade decorations, they say, promote authenticity and creativity.

“My main reason is that children grow up here, we have to show them our traditions and their roots,” said Tobón. “It’s so important to keep the sense of our traditions, they are sacred. And being practical and creative makes it more valuable than going to the store and getting something mass-produced.

Celebrate Día de los Muertos

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, dates back to the pre-colonization of the continent, perhaps even earlier. Ancient civilizations, such as the Aztecs and Toltecs of Mexico, believed that the spirits of the dead visited the physical world at this time of year. To aid the dead on their journey back to their families and resting places, they left out food and drink alongside bright orange cempasúchil, a nahua word (language of the largest indigenous group in Mexico) meaning “flower of twenty petals”.

Ivan Sandoval-Cervantes, professor of cultural anthropology at UNLV, said he was fascinated by this lasting celebration. It has evolved and expanded over time – the latter element he attributes to migration and, more recently, social media.

“The celebration is doomed to survive because it is so flexible,” he said in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “Because it can mean different things to everyone. It has to do with something very concrete and it is something that we have all experienced: the death of someone close to us.

The celebration has become widely observed across the United States in recent years, led by immigrant and Latino communities. They assemble altars adorned with photos of deceased loved ones, food, water, tequila, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), flowers and more.

Sandoval-Cervantes said events like the one hosted by Tobón and Ramos help connect community members, who may be far from their families or places where loved ones have been put to rest. In Mexico, the celebrations create a special occasion for people to visit relatives they may not have seen for a long time.

“This is something that is really hard to achieve once you start to uproot yourself or uproot your family and it takes time to settle down and re-create those roots in a specific place,” Sandoval-Cervantes said. . “So with all of these movements, this kind of community and community bonding is kind of getting a little looser. “

Sandoval-Cervantes said he didn’t celebrate Día de los Muertos much while growing up in Ciudad Juarez, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, seven miles south of El Paso, Texas. But now, with a 3 year old daughter, it is important for him and his family to make the celebration part of their lives every year as well.

“I want her to not only get to know the other muertos, but also to feel that there is a connection with people in her life who are not here and that she will never meet in person”, a- he declared. “Where we can imagine or believe that we can communicate with them through ofrendas … life. ‘”

Last month’s Día de los Muertos celebrations didn’t just take place in Las Vegas. UNR’s Latino Research Center held its annual altar competition this weekend, and several organizations have teamed up to host a festival and theatrical event in northern Nevada this year.

In Latin American countries, people build altars in their homes and then go to cemeteries to visit the graves of their loved ones, tidy them up, and leave fresh flowers. Urban areas, such as Mexico City, host parades and other areas bring cemeteries to life with music, food, and people celebrating the next morning, ushering in All Saints’ Day.

Historical roots

Sandoval-Cervantes said there is a natural tension between the traditionally Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos and the American Halloween festivities, which are only celebrated one day apart. Although the celebrations are unique, they can be enjoyed simultaneously, he said, and some traditions have been mixed or changed.

Take, for example, treats: in some parts of Mexico, children knock on doors asking for treats “for mi calaverita”, Which means“ for my sugar skull. ”

“This is often seen as something that is a Halloween product, but has a different story that has to do with people asking, during the Mexican Revolution, for money for their dead, so that they can pay. for a funeral, ”he said.

It is not known how many people died in the decade-long war, but historians estimate that at least 1 million people lost their lives.

Halloween decor often includes skeletons, an image originally used in Mexico as a social critic of elites during the Porfiriato, a term given to President Porfirio Diaz’s seven-term presidency that catalyzed the Mexican revolution. His presidency saw a sharp divide between the rich and poor classes and was popularly criticized by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, a political lithographer from Aguascalientes, who used skeletons to deliver his critiques. Posada’s point? Everyone is a skeleton under the rags or riches they wear.

“They have become so central in Día de los Muertos that it is hard to imagine that they existed for other purposes,” Sandoval-Cervantes said of the calaveras, or skeletons.

The COVID-19 pandemic will likely have an effect on the celebration, although it’s hard to say at this time, he said. Last year, Latinos struggled with the magnified loss caused by the virus, which hit the community particularly hard in Nevada and the United States.

“There are going to be more altars, more ofrendas, for the elderly and the youngest deceased in the United States, but also in Mexico ”, he declared. “It could be something that will be incorporated into these ritual practices… [Día de los Muertos is] really easily tuned in to things that are going on right now.

In the United States, Latinos often devote ofrendas to socio-political issues, such as immigration reform efforts that would provide greater stability to those protected by the Deferred Action Program for Childhood Arrivals. (DACA) or by the temporary protection status (TPS). This connection and expression has roots in Mexico, said Sandoval-Cervantes, and is not apolitical.

Historically, politicians and officials have been directly criticized by calavera poems, spiritual and satirical compositions that are delivered on Día de los Muertos. The socio-political upheaval experienced in Mexico is hard to ignore on Día de los Muertos, said Sandoval-Cervantes, as people remember the 100,000 or so people who have disappeared, according to the National Tracing Committee, or have lost their way. life as a result of the ongoing drug wars.